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Venomous Snake ID in the Southeast – Part 1

As an avid animal-lover with a particular affinity for the reptilian beasties, I am always a little disheartened when someone I know informs me that they have recently killed a snake on their property. In many cases, the tale is accompanied by a photo, either via Facebook, email, or cellphone, with the intent that I (the unofficial “snake guy” that they know) can identify the species. Regrettably (especially for the snake), most of the time, it turns out to be a completely harmless species, such as a garter snake, rat snake, or the common Dekay’s brown snake, rather than a venomous, potentially dangerous rattlesnake or copperhead that the individual likely thought.

As a parent myself, I certainly can understand the “better safe than sorry” approach in regards to protecting your loved ones. Likewise, I can sympathize that it can be difficult to properly identify different species of snake when so many closely resemble each other, especially for someone without an innate desire to study them. Nevertheless, I feel that if many people took the time to educate themselves a little more about the species of snakes that are indigenous to their area (as well as all wildlife, really), they could learn to better distinguish venomous snakes from harmless ones. Ultimately, this could lead to a lot less deaths of “mistaken identity” as all snakes do play an important ecological role in their respective environments.

Since in practically any given area in the United States, the ratio of harmless snake species greatly outnumbers that of venomous species, I generally advise people to focus on learning about the few venomous snakes, as opposed to trying to memorize the appearance of every single species in their area. For instance, there are over 45 snake species in Alabama alone, with only 6 of them being venomous. Out of those 6 species, three are only found in dense, wooded environments, far from human dwellings and are only likely to be encountered in rural areas. One of these species is the secretive and elusive coral snake, of which I will briefly describe below.
As its names implies, the eastern coral snake is found throughout much of the southeast United States, preferring pine and scrub oak sand hills habitats as well as hardwood areas. They are fossorial in nature, which means they spend much of their time burrowed underneath the ground, rotting logs, or other forest debris. Averaging between 3-4 feet in length, their diet includes insects and other reptiles.

The coral snake is part of the family of snakes called elapids, which includes cobras, mambas and sea snakes. Its venom is a neurotoxin delivered by small fixated fangs, unlike the hemotoxic venom delivered by the large, folded fangs in pit vipers like rattlesnakes and copperheads. However, coral snakes are not prone to biting unless particularly provoked. Their teeth are so small they could hardly penetrate denim jeans or a thick wool sock, much less a shoe. Their non-aggressive behavior combined with their secretive nature makes them exceptionally rare. Coral snakes account for less than one percent of the number of snake bites per year in the U.S. It is for this reason that the antivenin for its bite is no longer in production because the snake is so infrequently encountered!

While the coral snake lacks the “wide, triangular head” that many tend to associate with venomous snakes, and it is exempt from the so-called rule that all venomous snakes have vertical “cat-eye” pupils (who wants to get close enough to look anyway?), its distinctive red, yellow and black banding is enough for anyone to readily identify it. However, nature still has thrown a loop, in the form of the scarlet snake and the scarlet kingsnake. Both of these harmless species have undoubtedly evolved to mimic the coloration of the venomous coral snake to deter predators. So how does one tell the difference? First of all, there’s the familiar rhyme that goes, as follows:

“Red touches black, friend of Jack.
“Red touches yellow, kill a fellow”

In other words, if you encounter a snake where the red bands are touching the black bands, you are looking at a perfectly harmless scarlet snake or kingsnake. If you find a snake where the red bands are touching the yellow bands, it would be a coral snake. Beware! There is also another major distinguishing feature to go by: coral snakes ALWAYS have a black head with yellow bands. Both the scarlet and the scarlet kingsnake have red-heads. See the images below for comparison.

Coral Snake *VENOMOUS*

  • Scarlet Snake *Harmless
  • Scarlet Kingsnake *Harmless

    For tips on how to snake-proof your yard and home, check out this link!

    *Photos courtesy of Ritchie King and Rick Dowling.



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